Vanessa in Taos

Vanessa is a senior majoring in biology and anthropology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. During summer 2012, she is studying at SMU-in-Taos.

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Trip to Bear Country

This weekend we had another field trip. For this adventure we went to the Taos Ski Valley to take a hike in what Dr. Ubelaker affectionately calls “Bear Country.” I was excited about the trip, but I was desperately praying that I wouldn’t see any bears during the hike. That idea just freaked me out quite a bit.

The drive wasn’t as long as I had expected, so I still had plenty of energy left to explore the Italionalis mountain trail. Once again, the scenery was gorgeous. The fir, alder, and spruce trees were so beautiful and complemented the clear blue sky that morning.

Our hike began at 8 feet above elevation and Dr. Ubelaker led the way. We made several stops along the trail so we could observe bear caves, learn about the history of the area, and, of course, hear about the vegetation in the forest. Ubelaker showed us wild carrot, wild mustard, an extremely poisonous plant that I can’t remember the name of, fir trees, alder trees, and the Alpine Grove, a 30-acre area where bears usually retreat for their habitat.

All the way down the hiking trail is the Hondo River, a beautiful water source that runs to the Hondo Valley, miles from the Ski Valley. But the highlight of the hike was when we had reached our landmark of Alpine Grove and listened to Dr. Ubelaker describe how it was formed and why bears like to make their home in such areas.

Most of the grove is formed from one tree that branches out at many points to grow in various places. He used the example of digging your hand into the ground and then observing how your fingers jut out from the soil at their own distinct locations. To the eye, it appears that your fingers are all separate “trees,” but in reality they are all connected as one tree, with several locations. It was amazing to see these 20-foot-tall structures and learn that it’s all the same tree.

About five minutes up from the grove, we went to a part of the cliff where Ubelaker showed us a tree that is a useful indicator of an avalanche. Apparently the position of the root of the tree is unique in identifying the phenomenon. He also showed us bear claw markings on one of the trees just a few feet from the avalanche tree! The only way for the claw markings to be created was by the bear standing on its hind legs and scatching the tree. According to Dr. Ubelaker, that is how bears mark their territory, so when other bears pass by and reach up to do the same, if they aren’t taller than the bear, they had better leave the area, because the other bear won’t be happy to have their company.

After the hike, we went to a local ice cream shop called Taos Cow, where the ice cream is made with natural ingredients and doesn’t contain rBGH ( recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone). I didn’t want any, but all of my classmates seemed to really enjoy it. The surrounding shops in the area were very colorful and beautiful. Taos has such a small-town feel, but there are some hidden treasures within it that only true natives of the area would know about. I will definitely be back to explore the other shops.

Our last stop for the day was at a hippie site. It is tradition for Ubelaker to take his classes to the house and help with out with any chores. In the open field before reaching the house, we saw the most adorable prairie dogs! They scampered off so quickly at the sound of our van coming up the road, so I wasn’t able to get a picture of them. But they were the cutest little things. The rest of the house was gorgeous, and it seemed like a lot of field work was being done to restore it. Dr. Ubelaker stated that in the past, the hippie house ran similar to a business and delivered fresh milk right outside your door at 6am in the morning, and also produced other natural products that people in the surrounding area could use. It wasn’t until the ’60s and later that the stereotypical “hippie” actions came into play, and downgraded the house’s original purpose to meaningless use. But, the owner of the compound, who apparently is a former physician from Los Angeles, has been working to restore the area to its original use. We will be heading back to the house on Thursday to help. I can’t wait to return. This has definitely been a great weekend!

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